‘An Ideal Husband’ was vivacious.
What do a rubber John Howard mask and Oscar Wilde have in common? On the surface, not much, but in La Boîte Theatre’s third mainstage show of 2022, ‘An Ideal Husband’, a queer reimagining of Wilde’s classic play, there is quite an amount of crossover.
As with most of Wilde’s outrageous and extravagant works, ‘An Ideal Husband’ pokes fun at high society with incredible wit and intrigue, and a plot as complicated as ever. Writer Lewis Treston and director Bridget Boyle catapult this story into the darkly funny, nefarious fictionalised world of Canberra in the 1990s.
Treston’s writing is sexy, satirical and satisfying. He manages to retain the camp and extravagance of Wilde’s signature witty style but brings it into dialogue with modern language. This shift was initially jarring, but as the production went on, audiences adjusted to the new writing. The sense of height in the performance styles takes a moment to warm up, but once it does, it catches fire. It gives new and untapped energy that is incomparable to any of La Boite Theatre’s mainstage productions this year.
Any fan (if one could call themselves such a thing) of Australian politics will get an extra kick out of this adaptation. The story is laced with all-too-familiar political corruption and metaphors on how democracy deals with minority groups. There’s an evident seriousness in much of the political corruption in the show, which, when put in direct contrast with a very visual and camp sense of humour, is perfectly surmised in the recurring motif of cartoonist John Howard’s scattered throughout the show. ‘An Ideal Husband’ celebrates the ridiculousness of Australian politics and its icons, while deeply examining its flaws during a period of political intrigue, during Howard’s stint in the top job during the 90s, a figure whose politics divided and corrupted, in a manner very similar to what we have recently experienced.
Direction by Boyle draws everything from the verbal language and translates it into a distinct physical language, all while accompanied by choreography by Neridah Waters and fight coordination by Nigel Poulton. This physicality shines in the relationship between Arthur and Lucian, culminating in a risqué, but incredibly well-choreographed farcical bedroom foray.
The show’s design was a treat and saw grunge blended with the extravagant wealthy upper-echelon of Canberra. The set design itself was reminiscent of the House of Representatives, with the iconic dark, lacquered wood and stuffy, expensive-looking furnishings. The blocking also included entrances through the audience, which provokes onlookers to consider their own voyeurism upon the story, and how we interact with corruption and politics in our own lives.
The cast, made up mostly of La Boite’s artist company, was marvellously quick and domineering. An absolute highlight of the show was Christen O’Leary as Tina Topaz, the coked-up widow of a former Prime Minister with more than questionable morals. She had the audience in complete stitches in her monologue towards the end of Act One, and it is not an exaggeration to say that I could have watched a whole play of just Ms Topaz. She played the out-of-touch, wealthy woman trope to perfection.
Hsiao-Ling Tang grounded the story as Robyn Shi, a minister for the environment. She battled with wanting to succeed in politics whilst being a person of colour, and a closeted queer woman. She met her match with love interest and advisor, Gertrude Chiltern, played by master comic Emily Burton, who delivered as high-strung and commanding.
Billy Fogarty as Mabel has whip-cracking wit, with dry, holier-than-thou delivery. They were the perfect intellectual opposite to Will Carseldine as Artie, whose balance between vanity and desire made him a compelling force of comedy and drove the story with his romantic pursuits, especially with Patrick Jhanur as Lucian Chevely.
Fogarty, Tang and Burton brought a sense of ownership of power onto the stage, something that women in politics are too often denied. It is so satisfying for female characters to be able to be angry and fierce onstage and be unapologetically celebrated for it.
With a deadly combination of a courageous creative team and an undeniably talented and sparkling cast, ‘An Ideal Husband’ is a riotous celebration of the frenzied, terrifying and influential world of Australian politics-and everything that hides beneath the expensive smiles and photo ops.
‘An Ideal Husband performs until Saturday. 6 August at La Boite Theatre. For more information visit the La Boite website.
Photography Morgan Roberts